Features | From Pivot Magazine

The Arctic wants to be Canada’s next tourism hot spot

A determined group of indigenous entrepreneurs is opening the north for business

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Tundra North Tours founder Kylik Kisoun Taylor with a herd of reindeer in Inuvik (Danny Swainson/Tundra North Tours)

When I call Keith Henry at 6 p.m., he’s already in the future. Or rather, he’s 16 time zones to the east, in Auckland, taking part in Canada’s first-ever trade mission focusing on Indigenous business and entrepreneurship. But he’s also thinking years down the road, hoping that the Kiwis might be a model for the future of Indigenous tourism in Canada. “These guys are basically the world leaders in this regard,” says Henry, president and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC). “They know how to position themselves, and they know how to market that part of their culture in a way we haven’t been able to figure out in Canada yet.”

Five per cent of New Zealand’s $29-billion annual tourism revenue is related to Māori culture. Canadian tourism—a $97-billion industry in 2017—is a much bigger pie, but experiences related to Indigenous culture are a much smaller slice: only $1.5 billion. In other words, Canada is leaving a lot of money on the table, much of it in the country’s most economically disadvantaged communities. Of course, Canada faces challenges that don’t apply to a place like New Zealand: the weather is harsher, the travel is pricier and many of our most extraordinary Indigenous-tourism experiences are found in the remotest corners of Canada’s 10 million square kilometres (as compared to New Zealand’s relatively compact 270,000). But decades of under-investment, lacklustre infrastructure and the near-impossibility of finding enough well-trained staff in remote communities have also ensured that, despite a nationwide network of ambitious entrepreneurs, the sector has never taken off.

Henry believes the industry is at a tipping point, however. ITAC, founded in 2015, is Canada’s first successful national Indigenous tourism organization. “Truthfully, before then, I don’t think we had enough businesses at the market-ready level to make a national organization relevant,” he says. “Now, we’re telling remote communities that they need to create a destination. They’ll have a canoe tour or a dogsled race, which is great, but how are you going to provide transportation, accommodation, food services? A destination rather than a one-off business?” 

“I was a typical Canadian,” says Kylik Kisoun Taylor. “I thought there’d be igloos everywhere and caribou running through the streets.”

Creating a full-service destination is easier said than done, particularly in the remote northern communities where so much of the sector’s potential lies. From the northern lights and polar bears to heli-skiing and ecotourism (environmentally responsible travel through threatened ecosystems, such as the Northwest Passage), the North offers a wealth of one-of-a-kind experiences, but packaging them into accessible and affordable tourist itineraries is a whole separate challenge.

Kylik Kisoun Taylor founded Tundra North Tours in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, in 2006. The son of a settler father and an Inuk and Gwich’in mother, Taylor spent his childhood in Ontario’s Muskoka region before moving to Inuvik at 14, reconnecting with his family’s Indigenous side. “I was a typical Canadian,” he says. “I thought there’d be igloos everywhere and caribou running through the streets.”

Today, Taylor sees tourism as instrumental in growing the local economy, but also to fostering pride of place. “There’s a massive social component to what we do,” he says. “It’s important to our people to stay in touch with their culture, and it’s our selling point, our differentiating factor. Canadians want to engage with Indigenous cultures, and it’s up to us to help make that happen.” 

Taylor’s travel packages range from a boat tour of the Mackenzie River delta, for $400, to a “Canadian Arctic Reindeer Signature Package,” for $5,200. For that, you get to travel by snowmobile alongside reindeer herders (government-employed locals who move Canada’s only wild reindeer herd to its spring calving grounds), build and sleep in an igloo, spend time with elders and drive along a new highway to the Arctic Ocean. Taylor’s uncle, an elder who grew up on the land, acts as an informal cultural ambassador, guiding tours and advising him on new products.   

Taylor has made the business work for more than a decade, but a discernible frustration creeps into his voice when discussing the challenges of operating a business in a community of barely 3,000 people north of the Arctic Circle. “For skilled workers, the capacity is quite low right now,” says Taylor. “You have to think of what these communities are going through, their recent history, the resulting mental health and other issues.” Plus, much of the community’s best talent works in government: “The North is a government economy. We can’t compete with the wages.”

“You can make $80,000 in the mines with no education. So it’s hard to say, ‘hey, do you want to be a tourism entrepreneur instead?’”

Wage subsidies are a plank of “Tunngasaiji,” Nunavut’s recently announced tourism-strategy report, which lays out the need for better data-gathering on tourists, skills development for tourism employees, and coordinated spending between the federal and territorial government on tourist infrastructure. 

As it stands, Nunavut offers a lesson in under-exploited potential. Few communities have passable visitor accommodations, larger villages along the Arctic Ocean lack proper port facilities to handle even small cruise ships and eco-tours, and, as in Inuvik, staffing is a constant challenge. According to David Akeeagok, Nunavut’s minister of economic development and transportation, the most up-to-date tourism statistics come from 2015, when tourism accounted for just over one per cent of the territory’s GDP, at $21 million, and 250 direct jobs, less than one per cent of the labour force. (Tourism nationwide accounts for more than twice that share of the national GDP.) More than two-thirds of those tourists were business travellers, meaning that few of them are taking advantage of the wealth of experiences on offer. If more day trip opportunities were readily available, Akeeagok believes more business travellers would take advantage of them.

In northern Quebec, Robin McGinley, executive director of the Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association (COTA), faces some of the same challenges. “You can make $80,000 a year in the mines with no education,” she says. “It’s hard to say to someone, ‘Hey, do you want to be a tourism entrepreneur?’ ” But COTA has had an easier go of it than many other groups, in part due to a farsighted provision included in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, the 1975 settlement between the Crown and the Cree and Inuit of Quebec. Among the treaty obligations, the Canadian and provincial governments were to assist in establishing COTA. That has meant a more consistent funding source for decades. “I’m not scrambling to make payroll,” says McGinley, “which is not the case everywhere. A lot of Indigenous tour operators are just starting to come back now, thanks in part to ITAC, but there was a long period when people just couldn’t keep their doors open.”

“We don’t want people coming to Calgary or Toronto and thinking they’ve seen it all. There’s a whole country to explore.”

Reliable funding has helped turn a patchwork of entrepreneurs and one-off businesses throughout Eeyou Istchee—the Cree homeland, scattered over an area of Quebec larger than Germany—into something closer to what ITAC’s Henry would call a “destination.” Most communities have new or recently renovated accommodations, entrepreneurs are vetted for market-readiness by ITAC standards, and COTA has launched an inbound travel agency to centralize booking and travel packages. (Given sporadic cell coverage and spotty, often low-speed internet service, simply getting in touch with tour operators in the North can take persistence.)

This is something like the model ITAC hopes to create nationwide. Its membership has grown to more than 400, with 174 being “market-ready” for promotion. In February 2018, it signed an agreement with Parks Canada to develop and promote tourism opportunities in national parks. the organization’s budget is now $5 million, up from only $250,000 three years ago. “I feel like I’m drinking out of a firehose every day,” says Henry.

While Canada’s vastness poses a challenge, Henry sees opportunity there as well. “Somewhere like New Zealand, there’s a pretty standard approach,” he says. “You go to Auckland and see some Māori culture, and it’s similar to what you have elsewhere. But in Canada, our advantage is the enormous diversity. We don’t want people coming to Calgary or Toronto and thinking they’ve seen it all. There’s a whole country to explore.”